Editorials

NC Republicans worry their own law could backfire

North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders will spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on Tuesday to get around a law they themselves passed just two years ago.

That doesn’t sound conservative to us, but it’s part of a pattern in Raleigh: Leading legislators, when inconvenienced by law, precedent, tradition or common decency, obliterate it and do it their way.

In this case, they have called a highly unusual special session for Tuesday to seize power from a bipartisan commission that they created and empowered. Legislators had tasked that commission with writing short captions to put on the ballot summarizing proposed constitutional amendments. Now, they fear the panel’s captions will be too honest, so they plan to neuter the group and take care of the matter themselves.

Why should you care? Because it’s all part of a cynical effort by legislators to keep the public confused about what these amendments would truly do and to protect their own political careers.

Six proposed amendments will appear on the ballot. The legislature has already spelled out exactly what the wording of the questions for voters will be. At issue now are labels that would appear on the ballot right above the amendment description.

Under a law Republicans passed in 2016, those labels are to be written by a three-member panel comprised of the attorney general, the secretary of state and the legislative services officer. But with two of those three being Democrats, legislators want to change the rules. (We guess they expected Republican Buck Newton, not Democrat Josh Stein, would be the attorney general by now.)

While Republicans have no good intent here, and no legitimate grounds for changing the process, it’s all a bit of a kerfuffle compared with two bigger problems: Several of these constitutional amendments are bad policy; and the wording of the amendment questions, not the labels, is what is misleading and needs much greater transparency.

For example, one amendment allows legislators to take tremendous power from the governor but the wording gives no hint of that. Another requires voter photo ID but lets legislators fill in all the details later, including what IDs will be allowed and what exceptions there will be. Another purports to remove the politics from appointing judges but would do no such thing.

There is a certain irony to all this. The amendments were widely seen as designed to boost Republican turnout in what could be a historically strong Democratic year. Amendments to cap the income tax rate and to protect hunting and fishing, for example, could achieve that.

But legislators’ deceptive and manipulative efforts this week to further politicize the process could backfire on them. They have turned a sleepy, down-ballot question into a reminder of all that Democratic and unaffiliated voters are fed up with from Republican leaders in Raleigh. That might not be enough to defeat the amendments, but it could pluck off a handful of legislators crucial to continued Republican control.

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